Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Sorrow

“Today we didn’t have classes because one of our classmates died yesterday.  He tripped over a gun and shot himself.”
“My husband didn’t know how to swim and he drowned in the lake.”
“One of our members from Christian Women’s Fellowship lost her husband last week.”
“Our house was attacked by thieves.  They came in and forced my son to drink kerosene because they wanted to kill him.”
“Ah, Sister, the day after you left some thieves came and broke the bars on the doors and stole money I had for the children’s school fees.”
“Last week our friends where held at gun point while the thieves went through their house.”

I heard these statements from various friends this past week.  Statements that remind me how hard and short life can be in Cameroon.  Statements that evoke the same feelings I felt when I was here before and came flooding back so strongly right before I came that I almost didn’t return to Cameroon. As I deepen relationships with friends in Cameroon I am reminded that sharing in their life means opening myself up to their sorrow and pain.  I don’t want to.  I want to just experience the joys of a shared hug, smile, meal, song, dance, safety-- the beautiful moments I have had the past two months.  I want to go around or run away from the pain, the sorrows, the fear.  I want to live a safe life in my house doing my research and believe that I can make a difference through scholarly achievements alone.  But I know that in doing so I’m not really living or being helpful to my friends.  As Henri Nouwen says, “We want to be professionals: heal the sick, help the poor, teach the ignorant, and organize the scattered.  But the temptation is that we use our expertise to keep a safe distance from that which really matters and forge that in the long run, cure without care is more harmful than helpful.  Let us therefore first ask ourselves what care really means and then see how care can become the basis of community.”

I was thinking about this again this morning, Palm Sunday, and realized that when I returned to Cameroon it was a joyful, triumphal re-entry.  It was great to be back, to renew friendships, to eat the food again.  Now I am called to move through the other emotions that Holy Week evoke—pain, separation, grief, sorrow, and stay with and care for my friends, not run away, not try to cure them, and patiently wait the promise of Easter.     

For many of us, the life we need to lose is life lived in the image of the autonomous self, and the life we shall then find is that of the self embedded in community—a community that connects us not only to other people but to the natural world as well.  No wonder resurrection is so threatening; it forces us to abandon any illusion we may have that we are in charge of our own lives, able to do whatever we want accountable to no one but ourselves, free of responsibility to others.

Parker Palmer

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chop Fayne

Considering that I spend a significant amount of time each day thinking about, looking for, preparing, and cleaning up meals it is surprising that I haven’t written much about what I eat, or as it is said in Pidgin, chop.  I usually find it an enjoyable challenge to experiment making American food with Cameroon ingredients.  Thanks to my Mennonite cookbook, More with Less, and the Cameroon Peace Corps cookbook, Chop Fayner, I have recipes to make everything from laundry soap to Apple Pie.  I’m  also fortunate to live in a house with a refrigerator, a stove, oven, and a freezer, in a region in Cameroon with access to plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a white man store nearby to buy yogurt, cheese, and butter. 

My day usually begins with coffee and vanilla flavored powdered milk.  The coffee market in Cameroon is resurging after bottoming in the early 90’s.  My favorite kind of coffee, which I have only found in Kumbo, is called Every Sip a Safari.  It is my favorite not because of the taste, but because of what it says on the back of the package:

A wired galaxy of savored darkness
The swirling dark liquid in my cup, in my mouth.
Ah what soothing fire, a plague upon sleep this coffee is.

Seep sanity away, ye champion of caffeine.
Wither the coffee curves around blocks of ice in my cup
of a hot steam gallops from the hot liquid, I shall sip with affection and lust.
Sweep my stress away, ye champion of flavor.

Turn the jumbo into jingle.
Turn the swamp into a river.
Turn the woman/man into a lover.
Yet I plead to every God, and oath to every start, turn the water into coffee. 

What an ode to coffee!

That is the coffee package on the left, my French Press, and starbucks mug.  The mug was here when I moved into my house.  It brings a smile to my face to drink coffee from a starbucks mug even though I don't think there is starbucks on the African continent.

This is my vegetable mommy.  I buy tomatoes, onions, and pears (avocados) from her about two times a week.

This is me working in the farm.  Almost all of the women here plant, weed, and harvest by hand using that hoe. I usually don't help much, but provide a lot of comic relief as the African women pass by and laugh at the white girl trying to weed grass.

Picking pumpkin leaves for that night's dinner. I cooked the pumpkin leaves with tomatoes, onion, and salt and served with my version of fu-fu corn---cornbread!

Today I helped Emmanuela's family make ekwang. I call it a Cameroon version of manicotti, but instead of stuffing shells with cheese you stuff leaves with mashed yams.

We first started by washing the cocoyams,

destemming the cocoyam leaves,

 grating  the cocoyams into a fine mush,

putting into the leaves, rolling them,

and putting them into the pot and cooking it over the fire with tomatoes, onion, and crawfish.

Chop Fayne!
But I usually don't make Cameroon meals when I'm by myself.  Instead I make American food like pizza, tortillas and guacamole, lentil soup, cheese enchiladas, and bread.

Now that mangos are coming into season I'm beginning to experiment with the fruit.  The other day I made mango kuchen.  It is kind of like cobbler. 
In the picture is my locally made bread pan.  I went looking for a bread pan at the white man store and they brought me to a car part store where a man was making things out of sheet metal.  So yes, my bread pan is made out of sheet metal. 

I'm realizing that cooking in Cameroon is a good metaphor for life--making the most of what you have while adapting to the local context. 

Good food should be grown on whole soil, and be eaten whole, unprocessed, and garden fresh.
Helen and Scott Nearing
Living the Good Life

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Second Goal

Even though I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sometimes feel I am still working towards achieving the second goal of Peace Corps service, “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”  Sometimes this happens without really intending to do so and other times it is an overt attempt to transfer skills and build capacity with my research colleagues.  Regardless, it usually turns out quite different than I expected.  For example, this past weekend Odette has been staying with me in my house.  I met Odette when I lived in Bafut as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  We both attended the Bafut Presbyterian Church and she would come once a week to wash my floors in my house.  When I visited Bafut for Youth Day, she asked if she could come to Kumbo during school holidays.  I said yes, but didn’t think it would actually happen.  Nevertheless, she called two weeks ago and said she was coming this week and how could I say no to such an excited voice on the phone?  She met me in Bamenda on Thursday accompanied me back to Kumbo.  When we got to my house Thursday night I asked, “What do you want to do tomorrow?”  “I will clean your dresses and dry clean your floor” was her reply.  When I heard this, I had two simultaneous thoughts.  First, only an African child would say that on vacation they want to wash clothes by hand and second, I get a break from having to wash my clothes by hand!  But I also wanted her to have fun while she was here and promised her that we would have a slumber party in the evening.  This was my attempt at sharing American culture.  I had a great plan of moving the mattresses from the beds and putting them in the loft and staying up late telling stories and sleeping in and eating pancakes the following morning.  After all, isn’t that what an American slumber party entails?  But this is what actually happened—it took some persuading that sleeping on mattresses on the floor would be fun, she went to bed before me at 9 pm, and after she woke at 6 am she immediately started sweeping my floor.  Well, I thought it was fun, and not because I didn’t have to sweep my floor that morning. 

Unfortunately, I cannot say that my attempts to transfer of knowledge and skills turn out any better.  Last week I was working with some colleagues of Dr. Okwen’s and Nancy’s because they wanted to learn about qualitative research methodologies.  I wasn’t exactly prepared to go over the mechanics of the process as I thought the trip to Bamenda would be about coding our data, not giving a crash course in health behavior change theories.  After the few hours of working with them on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m not sure they really understood what I was saying.  Upon further reflection I was reminded of my bad habit of assuming because I understand how something works, everyone else does too and make too many leaps and assumptions in my teaching.  Instead, I think I should take a cue from the following picture:

This paper was posted on the stall of a flushing toilet in a training center.  I think many Cameroonians from rural areas come to the training center and may never have used a flushing toilet.  At first I found it humorous, but later realized it actually is a very good teaching tool because it provides step by step instructions and doesn't assume the reader has any previous knowledge or experience with using a flushing toilet. 

Maybe whenever I find myself working on the second goal my mantra should be, “Look to the toilet!” 

Men and women confronting change are never fully prepared for the demands of the moment, but they are strengthened to meet uncertainty if they can claim a history of improvisation and a history of reflection.

Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions